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Gut-Check Time: Navigating The Ups And Downs Of Dramatic Change

How can some western communities and wildlands save their essence during booms, how do others prevent themselves from blowing away? A gathering in Bozeman will address these poles of 'New West'

Like a wild West boom town of old, growth around Bozeman and Big Sky, Montana is happening at breakneck speed. This unprecedented expansion of human footprint isn’t owed to traditional resource extraction but a new kind of industrial activity: real estate opportunity and land development that seemingly knows little bounds.  At present, bickering between the city of Bozeman and Gallatin County has left any discussions of how to plan sensibly for the future, while maintaining the natural character of place that lures newcomers in droves, in a quagmire.

More homes are lining rivers and cropping up on hillsides vulnerable to forest fires.  Costly sprawl is pushing deeper into rural areas and taxes continue to rise, dispelling notions that growth is paying for itself. 

In Jackson Hole, planning-related challenges loom at the forefront of major policy decisions ranging from open space protection to transportation concerns to affordable housing for working class residents; all the while, the squeezing effects of development on wildlife continues to rack up alarming roadkill tolls on the highways.

These are the two most visible examples where growth is transforming key areas of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem but the tentacles are reaching far and wide. Were Bozeman and Jackson Hole located in Iowa, or eastern Wyoming and Montana, such a deluge of people would be welcomed, like the gas drilling boom of the Bakken has in rural western North Dakota that previously was emptying out.  

But here the consequences of growth—the steady filling in of landscapes— are viewed as a major threat to Greater Yellowstone’s globally-renowned wildlife. How Greater Yellowstone as a region reacts is seen as a bellwether for other corners of the interior West, yet no other region holds the diverse wildlife assemblage Greater Yellowstone does, anchored by Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, and set apart by extraordinary migrations of large four-legged species.

For 30 years, Dennis Glick has been watching “the New West” unfold. Prior to coming to Greater Yellowstone in the late 1980s, Glick had distinguished tenure with the World Wildlife Fund creating national parks in Central America. Hired by the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, he and colleagues assembled a blueprint that examined the rapid pace of change occurring in the Yellowstone region just as the concept of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was becoming en vogue.

Later, he served as northern Rockies director for The Sonoran Institute and endeavored to examine how some communities are successful in maintaining their character and others succumb to unwanted change. Most recently, Glick founded Bozeman-based FutureWest, which is devoted to providing expertise to rural communities and boomtowns struggling to avoid the mistakes made by other places.  

In 2018, FutureWest hosted a major conference in Bozeman and in June it is following up with an event, "Sustaining the New West: Bold Visions — Inspiring Action," that includes an incredible line-up of speakers—a veritable who’s who—from across the West. The purpose: to provide policy makers, business leaders and citizens a better sense of how to preserve the places they love.  Recently, Todd Wilkinson of Mountain Journal sat down with Glick for an interview.
Mountain Journal Interview With Dennis Glick

Todd Wilkinson: You wrote a guest essay recently that appeared in a number of newspapers and you opened it with four statistics, among many that seem to be confirming the obvious. It is that portions of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are in the midst of epic transformation, most it related to the imprint of more people manifesting itself in myriad ways. Tell us about your essay

Dennis Glick: Let me repeat just a couple of the key points:

1.     Bozeman—which forms the urban crown of Greater Yellowstone and affects communities within a wide range around it— is the fastest growing micropolitan area in the country. Yes in all of America.

2.     If the current growth rate (3.8 percent) continues, the population of Gallatin County, which includes and encircles Bozeman, will double in less than 20 years to almost a quarter million people.

3.     Another driver of the unprecedented boom is the resort community of Big Sky, located in the wild heart of the Madison Mountain Range and adjacent to the Gallatin River and Gallatin Range. All three of those are ecological hotspots in terms of their importance for wildlife. At Big Sky right now, there is $1 billion worth of new construction and infrastructure improvements currently underway—that on top of what already exists there.

4.     In small town Livingston, Montana, where I live, a 132-acre subdivision was recently approved and Forbes Magazine named Livingston one of the best places in America to invest in vacation rentals.  As I’ve noted in the past, such “best of” lists can actually be curses for the communities appearing on them because they attract an influx of more people that brings a host of problems if local officials aren’t prepared to deal with growth.

Wilkinson: Your non-profit organization FutureWest earlier provided stats for an investigative report in Mountain Journal on growth challenges bearing down on Greater Yellowstone.  Initially, some readers were in denial but few people are any more. So where are we at today?

Glick: This is gut check time for those who love the world class values of the Northern Rockies – the wildest wildlands in the Lower 48, towns that have become known nationally for their high quality of life, and wide open spaces where the deer and the antelope play while ranchers and farmers work the land.  But for how much longer? 

Wilkinson: How is this boomtime different from others?

Glick: Our public wildlands are being stressed by climate change and ever increasing impacts from outdoor recreation. Our communities are struggling to manage new growth and many are becoming unaffordable for even the middle class. And farms and ranchlands are transitioning to subdivisions or amenity properties that may still provide refuge for wildlife but many are no longer welcoming to hunters.  And the rural towns once joined at the hip with the ag economy continue to wither.  Welcome to the New West. It’s not the environmental paradise we had all imagined. And while it does have its bright side, if we don’t do a better job of conserving those things that we love about this place, its dark side will become ever more apparent.
How can Greater Yellowstone's globally-renowned wildlife migration corridors, like those involving elk, above, endure when faced with development patterns like the one above? Not only will these animal pathways disappear but so, too, will the pastoral landscapes and the farming and ranching families living on them. To save both, FutureWest says, there needs to be a plan that fosters wise decisions and helps to preserve rural traditions.
How can Greater Yellowstone's globally-renowned wildlife migration corridors, like those involving elk, above, endure when faced with development patterns like the one above? Not only will these animal pathways disappear but so, too, will the pastoral landscapes and the farming and ranching families living on them. To save both, FutureWest says, there needs to be a plan that fosters wise decisions and helps to preserve rural traditions.
Wilkinson: Last year, rather than just cite statistics, FutureWest held a well-attended conference and in June you’re hosting another one, calling attention to issues.

Glick: The first conference that Future West hosted on these issues, “Sustaining the New West: Conservation Challenges – Conservation Opportunities” was an effort to sound a wake-up call to the array of 21st-century environmental issues confronting the region. 

Wilkinson: Give us an assessment of what’s worked and what hasn’t.

Glick: The conservation community did a good job bringing an end to damaging resource extractive activities such as unsustainable logging, gold mining in fragile wildlands, poorly managed public land grazing, and at least in some places, energy development near wildlands. These were conservation issues that most people recognized as negatively affecting the wildlife, waters and public lands of this region. 

But we were slow to wake up to the suite of new conservation challenges. Climate change, the affects of poorly managed growth, impacts from outdoor recreation, and expanding transportation systems severing wildlife corridors. These are, or should be, the focus of much of our conservation energies but we have yet to effectively retool our conservation efforts. That first “Sustaining the New West Conference” focused on these threats and their impacts.  Not wanting to leave people without hope, we also highlighted case studies of communities and organizations that had recognized these challenges and were making progress in overcoming them. 

Wilkinson: You’re known for designing conferences with innovative speakers and panels. What’s on the docket in 2019?

Glick:  “Sustaining the New West: Bold Visions – Inspiring Actions” takes off where the previous conference ended. After reminding people of the growth trends affecting the region, we will go bold and offer some alternative visions for the future of our communities, our working landscapes, and our wildlands.  Then we’ll go really bold and share Western examples of efforts to plan for sustainability on a regional scale. Yes, I said regional. I know that has been taboo, but the jury is no longer out on this issue. If we want to maintain the many incredible natural and cultural values of the West, we are going to have to start viewing, planning and managing this region on a landscape if not larger scale.   That is, if we are really serious about conserving what is special about this place.

Wilkinson: When you were the northern Rockies director of The Sonoran Institute, you and colleagues, along with then founder Luther Propst (who is today an elected commissioner in Teton County, Wyoming, i.e. Jackson Hole), unleashed an initiative called “Successful Communities” that did work in a variety of places, including Jackson Hole and Red Lodge, Montana….

Glick: I can’t imagine that any community doesn’t want to be “successful.”  But what does that mean? That’s precisely what the Successful Communities Program is about. Until a community has come together to identify what they value and what they want to change about their community, aka their shared vision for the future, they will be subject to the vision of others, usually developers, many of whom are not from that town nor necessarily have the long term interests of the community in mind.  Successful Communities is a process where people who are struggling with the impacts of rapid growth, or a loss of population, gain a better shared understanding of the problems they are facing, and the suite of tools available to overcome these challenges. And once they have an action plan in place, create a mechanism for implementation.  What do people in a community want to protect? What do they want to change? They are pretty simple questions, but it’s surprising how few communities have come together to determine that in a thoughtful, civil manner.
The farming community of Churchill in the middle of the Gallatin Valley.  Is this vision from the past a model for how to cluster growth in the future?  Churchill stands in sharp contrast to the scattershot development patterns sweeping across the Gallatin Valley from Bozeman.
The farming community of Churchill in the middle of the Gallatin Valley. Is this vision from the past a model for how to cluster growth in the future? Churchill stands in sharp contrast to the scattershot development patterns sweeping across the Gallatin Valley from Bozeman.
Wilkinson: Many rural places in the West are, in fact, emptying out or in the midst of a long steady decline as young people leave for better perceived opportunities in cities. People in rural communities feel forgotten and yet the lands in their stewardship play important ecological roles. What's the secret to building dialogues with rural people and are there any things that can be done to help them survive, including creating opportunities so that young people don't have to leave or give them a reason to come home after college?

Glick: I love the rural West and the people who live there, people who have made their living from the land.  I spent a lot of time on my grandparents' farm as a kid. And for whatever reason I have a special affinity for those places that don’t make Outside Magazine’s Top Ten List. I’ve lived in Libby and Butte, Montana and I moved to Livingston after the railroad closed and many thought the town was going to get blown away by the infamous Livingston wind. As an avid bird hunter, I have spent about every fall weekend for the past 20 years in places like Harlowton, Belt, Ekalaka, Martinsdale, Zortman, Saco, Froid, Ryegate, Ashland, Circle, Denton, Baker etc. 

Yea, that’s where the birds are, but the lovely human interactions I have had with rural landowners and people in those far flung communities have been priceless. As I like to say, if your car breaks down or you get stuck in a ditch, just hope a pickup truck comes by and not a Suburu. It’s the guy with the mud flaps that’s more likely to pull over and lend a hand.  

Wilkinson: Based on your own experience, how is their perspective on the West different from what’s found in Bozeman and Jackson Hole where a lot of the energy is focused on leisure activities as the foundation to a high quality of life?

Glick: In many cases those rural folks are struggling and while some of them may think it’s say, environmentalists that are the cause of their problems, it’s clearly much more complicated and oftentimes related to national and international issues and policies far from their ability to control. But there are things closer to home that they can, in fact, control. Perhaps the most important thing is their attitude. Change is inevitable. But it can happen by design, or by default. Recognizing and accepting that fact is a good first step in beginning to effectively confront the challenges facing many rural communities. 
"Change is inevitable. But it can happen by design, or by default. Recognizing and accepting that fact is a good first step in beginning to effectively confront the challenges facing many rural communities." 
Wilkinson:  How do communities move beyond polarization or despair?

Glick: It goes back to the vision thing. Understanding the challenges— the real challenges and their real causes— is an essential first step in overcoming them. And then rather than hoping that, for example, the “newcomers” moving into their community just go away, invite them to join in helping to achieve that community vision. And it has to be a two-way street.  When I hear my friends say that we need to “bridge the rural – urban divide,” what I hear them say is “we need to figure out how to get rural people to start thinking like us.” That’s the wrong attitude. 
How do great towns stay great and how can others find new vitality in the 21st century? That's the focus of FutureWest's conference in Bozeman.
How do great towns stay great and how can others find new vitality in the 21st century? That's the focus of FutureWest's conference in Bozeman.
Wilkinson: Okay, so what’s a better attitude?

Glick: What we need to do is to enter into a mutually respectful dialogue that seeks to find some common ground.  People want to be listened to, especially rural people and for good reason. It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. That will never happen. But I am confident that most Westerners can find plenty of things to agree on. 

The conservation community is starting to realize that “ those” people living in rural places can be or already are good stewards of the land.  That’s great, but we also need to recognize that in addition to conservation issues they have a whole bunch of other concerns related to the well-being of their communities, schools, public services, health care facilities etc. When conservationists start to understand and care about these issues as much as we do about the well-being of wildlife, then we will start to identify ways that we can all work together to help rural communities more than just survive, but actually offer a quality of life that will attract new residents and sustain those already there.

Wilkinson: Tell us about some of the individuals coming to your conference in June and how their perspectives weave together?

Glick: I am really jazzed about this year’s speakers. It’s a great mix of local and regional folks. Some of whom I’ve known for years, others I have never met but have heard about from a number of people. Dr. David Theobald from Fort Collins, Colorado is a rock star in the field of Conservation Biology.  His research on growth and climatic trends and their impacts on wildlife and biodiversity, and ways to mitigate these impacts, should be required reading for any Western conservationist. 

Lain Leoniak was once employed as the water conservation officer for the city of Bozeman. Now she’s an Assistant Attorney General for the State of Colorado working on multistate water compacts. Loren Bird Rattler has become a nationally known leader in planning for sustainability on a landscape scale as well as an eloquent spokesperson for Native American sovereignty issues.  

Robert Liberty was one of the architects of Oregon’s highly esteemed now 45 year old statewide planning and zoning efforts, and was the former Executive Director of what was arguably the nation’s premier NGO dedicated to promoting effective growth management. 

Canmore Mayor John Borrowman
Canmore Mayor John Borrowman
Rancher Denny Iverson is a long time member of the Blackfoot Challenge which is perhaps the West’s most successful rancher-led effort to conserve working landscapes, wildlife, water quality and rural community sustainability on a watershed scale. The mayor of Canmore, John Borrowman, next to Banff National Park in Canada will be there and has a good story to tell about a town that is concerned about both its environmental footprint as well as the quality of life and affordability of the community. These issues are parallel to what's happening in Greater Yellowstone. 

There are several other outstanding presenters, but I believe all of them have one thing in common, a love for our Western landscapes and communities, and a realization that we need to view them and their challenges from a more regional perspective. 

Wilkinson: Offer an observation about your own community, Livingston, which is connected via Paradise and the Upper Yellowstone river valleys to Yellowstone. FutureWest, I understand, is working in addressing issues in Gardiner, Montana— the original gateway town to Yellowstone. FutureWest is also based in Bozeman. Each of those places is confronting different kinds of challenges.  

Glick: In a way Gardiner is bellwether for what many Northern Rockies towns will soon be facing. Especially those that might be classified as being “gateway communities,” that is, adjacent to public lands and parks. Certainly Livingston and even Bozeman fall into that category. What do you do when your teachers, shop owners, service workers etc. can no longer live in your town because of a shortage of affordable housing caused by the conversion of residential homes to AirBnBs and vacation rentals?  And then people essential to maintaining the fabric of the community move out and school enrollment begins to plummet?  

That’s what’s happening in Gardiner. In Livingston we are starting to see the same trend. And while we do have more room to grow, we have no real plan for managing that growth and recently proposed subdivisions are not, let’s say, models for smart development.  Bozeman…what can you say… except that the pace and scale of new growth is the number one topic on everyone’s minds. 

I said it before and I’ll say it again. If we don’t have a clear and shared vision for our future, rest assured that someone else does. And I think that all three of these communities are struggling to craft that vision and equally important, come to some agreement on the actions needed to transform that vision to reality.  

Wilkinson: You often speak of your reverence for thinkers from Indian Country who take the long view.

Josiah and Tamahsat Pinkham
Josiah and Tamahsat Pinkham
Glick
: One of our conference speakers, Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham of the Nez Perce Nation, will share his thoughts on an essential foundation for all efforts to plan for and achieve a sustainable future for the West. That’s the critical need to nurture a true reverence for our homeland.  In other words our home ground. It seems like we are losing that spiritual connection to our lands, waters, wildlife and communities. The rush to monetize the natural environment has eroded our appreciation of the intrinsic values of our landscapes – whether or not we are “using” them.  Without that sense of reverence there is no restraint, and without restraint, the hope of fostering a truly sustainable future for the West, to paraphrase conservationist Bob Marshall, will melt away like a snow bank on a hot summer day.

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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